The Memo

The Memo: Trump is a risk to GOP in midterms

President Trump is going to make November’s midterm elections all about him — and it’s a high-risk strategy. 

The argument for putting Trump front and center is that he might be able to drive up Republican turnout.


“Turning out the base is the only option Republicans have for staving off a blue wave,” one former White House official told The Hill.

But Democrats are near-gleeful at the idea of Trump commanding the spotlight with fewer than 100 days until the midterms.

They note that his approval ratings are still mediocre, even if they have ticked up modestly in recent weeks.

They also contend that his involvement will juice Democratic turnout, a factor that they think will outweigh any beneficial effect on GOP voter enthusiasm.

“There are a vital minority of Republicans who are not so anxious to get out there and show their support for Trump, because they are at best ambivalent about him,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “And Democrats are almost universally appalled by him.”

An outsized personality like Trump was always bound to be central to the election campaign. But he has made it even more clear in recent days just how much he plans to engage.

On Friday, he told Sean Hannity during a radio interview that he intends to campaign “six or seven days a week” during the final two months of the campaign season. “I will be campaigning for all of these great people that do have a difficult race, and we think we’re going to bring them over the line,” he said.

On Sunday and again on Monday, he threatened a government shutdown if he is unable to secure funding to build the southern border wall that he pledged during his 2016 campaign. That risks a government closure just weeks before Election Day.

Previously, congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had ruled out a shutdown, and there is little appetite for such a move in the Republican-controlled House.

More generally, the president’s fierce attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller virtually guarantee that Mueller’s probe into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016 will continue to dominate headlines.

Indeed, as The Hill reported back in May, influential figures in Trump’s orbit have been arguing that one way to maximize GOP turnout is to frame the midterms as a referendum on Democratic efforts to possibly impeach the president.

Some independent observers suggest that Trump’s mercurial approach is a problem in and of itself, since it makes it more difficult for Republican candidates to predict what the news agenda will look like on any given day.

“It creates uncertainty,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Candidates like to have some idea of what is going to happen. Here, not only do they have no idea what is going to happen in a week or two; they don’t know what is going to happen by the end of the day.”

Republicans note that the administration has a strong economic record on which to run. But their worry is that the president’s capacity to ignite new controversy on a near-daily basis will blunt the force of the economic argument.

GOP strategist Whit Ayres highlighted the most recent, bullish data on employment and economic growth and praised Trump for having sought to make the most of that news.

“It would be helpful if the president continues to pound that message, and it would make it far easier for down-ballot Republicans to win reelection or for candidates for open seats to win election,” Ayres said.

“We have a very good story to tell, but it is difficult to tell that story if it is constantly obscured by the latest controversy,” he continued.

The former White House official, granted anonymity to speak candidly, cast the pros and cons of a central role for Trump even more widely.

“The president has some things going for him: a strong economic performance, the well-funded data-driven [Republican National Committee] built by Reince Priebus, the specter of another [Nancy] Pelosi speakership, and a friendlier terrain than Democrats had in 2010,” the former official said. 

But, the source added, “If trade wars tank the economy, the government shuts down or people start going to jail, the best ground game money can buy won’t prevent a blowout.”

Trump’s approval rating could pose challenges in competitive states and House districts. On Monday afternoon, the RealClearPolitics polling average indicated he was at 43.2 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval.

The electoral calculus is complicated because Republicans need to keep the support of Trump loyalists even as they try to expand their own appeal beyond the president’s limitations.

In addition, some experts suggest that drawing a direct correlation between Trump’s poll ratings and election results is fraught with difficulty.

“Trump got elected by people who had an unfavorable view of him,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “About 1 in 5 of the people who voted for him had an unfavorable view of him. That is why it is so complicated looking at his numbers.”

Trump, of course, remains supremely confident of his own effectiveness.

“Give me the top 25 congresspeople that are, you know, could go either way, and I want to go out and campaign for those people,” he said during his interview with Hannity.

The question is whether Trump will move those races in the way that he wants, or in the opposite direction.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Donald Trump Mitch McConnell Reince Priebus Robert Mueller

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